Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘women’s novels’ Category


Photo of Virginia Woolf by Barbara Strachey (1938)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eight Mondays, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 9
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a biography cum novel, which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time just before and as World War Two began: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. We will see clips of the film adaptation, Orlando, in class. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these original, delightful and serious books.


Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. ed. introd Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978015603473

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 5: 1st session: Introduction: Woolf, & the art of biography, Begin Flush

March 12: 2nd session: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning

March 19 & 26: Class cancelled: Read essay, “The Art of Biography” on your own.

April 2: 3rd session: begin Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, as and about biography

April 9: 4th session Orlando: history, time-traveling novel, tranvestite tale;

April 16: 5th session Orlando, we’ll see & discuss clips from the movie; begin Three Guineas

April 23: 6th session Three Guineas: political context, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial

April 30: 7th session Between the Acts as historical pageant, as history

May 7: 8th session Between the Acts: as a novel with story & characters. Last thoughts.


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. A novel from EBB’s maid’s point of view.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Sackville-West. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading and writing outside a cottage (Becoming Jane, 2007, scripted Kevin Hood, Susan Williams, directed Julian Jarrod)

Dear friends and readers,

I have over the years written several blogs on Christmas, mentions and uses by Austen in her novels (see especially her perception of Christmas in the novels) and the films adapted from them. In brief here is a sample:

Sense and Sensibility: The Miss Steeles “were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the park, and to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinner parties to proclaim its importance.”

Pride and Prejudice: Caroline Bingley’s cruel letter to Jane ends: “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.”

Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford : “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (she doesn’t believe that for a minute)

Emma (chosen from the long sequence): Mr. Weston: “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Mr Weston’s benign unsubtle view is not agreed with …)

Northanger Abbey: ‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’

Persuasion: “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper … the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course … Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain …”

You may skim the whole lot swiftly here.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

*****************************

Tonight I went through her letters and an overview for the first time in a couple of years brings home to me once again, how much is missing. For some years and phases of the year we see a regular rhythm to the letters, say two or three journal-style over two or three days will repeat itself, and then nothing. Major events not noted because they don’t occur on the days of the letters left to us. As to mentions of Christmas or the weather, one can conjecture that if a group of balls, dances, parties, dinners are all occurring between the last week of December and first of January they might be related to a holiday and there is a feel of regularity of occurrence at this time of year, but I found but no mention of Christmas itself (the word) and it is itself a reference to a general time when someone is expected to return to where the Austens are living (Southampton). It’s almost surprising this lack of reference to Christmas in the letters; yes a majority were destroyed, even so if you read what’s there I could find but two mentions specifically.

This is the slim matter I gleaned; there is much more matter in these letters but I pulled only that which could conceivably relate:


Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra reading one of Jane’s letters (2007 Becoming Jane)

No 14, Dec 18-19, 1798, Tues-Wed; Tues, Dec 18, Steventon: “I enjoyed the hard black Frosts of last week very much, & one day while they lasted walked to Deane by myself.” (4th ed, p 27)

No 15, Dec 24-26, 1798, Mon-Wed; Dec 24, Mon, Steventon: Frank is in Gibaltar, she has returned from Manydown, her mother “does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help,” there has been a ball, but that it was for Christmas is never said. She does write: “I wish you a merry Christmas but no compliments of the Season.” Cassandra has danced away at Ashford, there was to have been a dinner at Deane the night she is writing this sentence, “but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” There is no other mention of the holiday or weather (4th ed, pp 31-32)

No 17, Jan 8-9, Tues-Wed, 1799; Tues, Jan 8, Steventon: “a Ball at Kempshott this evening” … she had told Cassandra that “Monday was to be the Ball Night,” but no such thing.” Elizabeth has been very cruel about my writing Music; — & as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers and for her in future.” “I love Martha better than ever, & I mean to go & see her if I can when she gets home.” How there was a dinner at “Harwoods on Thursday, & the party broke up the next morning,” she shall be “such a proficient in Music by the time I have got rid of my cold, that I shall be perfectly qualified in that science at least to take Mr Roope’s office at Eastwell this summer … of my Talent in Drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you, & I have nothing to do but invent a few hard names for the Stars … ” Of a party at Manydown, “There was the same kind of party as last year, & the same want of chairs. — there were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.” She was not “very much in request –. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it” … But no mention any of this specifically for Christmas nor the weather (4th ed, pp 34-36)

No 29, Jan 3-5, Sun-Mon, 1801; Sat, Jan 3, Steventon: What is “uppermost in my mind” is “you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party’s being with you.” They visited Ash Park last Wednesday, “went off in a come-ca way; we met Mr Lefroy & Tom Chute, played at cards & came home again … ” This is letter is about what is happening at home because they are moving to Bath (providing for servants) and all the plans and doings about where they will live … (4th ed, p 69)

No 61, Nov 20, Sun, 1808; Sun Nov 3, Castle Square (Southampton): Mary Jane Fowle will “return at Christmas” with her brother.” Second and last use of the word in the collection that I found (4th ed, p 161)

No 63, Dec 2-28, Tues-Wed; Tues Dec 27, Castle Square: Eliza “keeping her bed with a cold … Our Evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too …. ” she “sitting very ungracious and silent with us … The last hour, spent in yawning & shivering in a wide circle round thefirst, was dull enough — but the Tray had admirable success.” She is talking of the food they ate, which by association leads to “Black Butter do not decoy anybody to Southampton.” No mention of any of this having anything to do with Christmas (4th ed, p 166)

A truly sparse amount of references. The novels give a sense of traditional parties, dances, festivities, rituals — as if in writing to the world she had to give such references and notice. Everything we read in other documents shows there were such, and from the early 16th century on we find such descriptions in diaries, journals, verse, documentary records. In the 1790s we begin to find references to Christmas a ritual of family getting together and a feeling of deep missing out if you don’t have such, if you live far from home (see for Southey’s Written on Christmas Day, 1795), from which I quote a passage here

I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship …
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye …

And since in her novels, Austen characteristically tells only as much as is needful for her story in her novels, except for the scenes around Christmas in Emma, which themselves occur because the Knightley family gets together at Christmas (the way people do today), what emerges is the satiric nature of her work: most of the references are half-mocking, fatuous hypocritical meretricious behavior at Christmas is what she registered first just the way she registers this for musical concerts (when people pretend to understand and be ravished by music) or romantic poetry, except this time in the few cases of characters who can really feel sincerely: Marianne for music and poetry, Elinor for drawing, Fanny for pictures, Jane Fairfax for music, Mr Knightley for sitting over a fire, Anne Elliot music and poetry, Catherine Morland reading, but nothing for Christmas. Perhaps she did have distaste for what she saw come out of the holiday customs specifically, humanely speaking.

Comparatively, to cite a few other authors, while Trollope also dislikes all the hypocrisy and commercialism arising from Christmas, he has stories where there is quiet thematic use of Christmas attaching to it true charity or kindliness of spirit when rightly observed. Because of the strong distaste for ceremonies of lies here (and elsewhere in his fiction), I have never made a Christmas blog about his work that I can recall, but perhaps this year I’ll break that non-pattern and write about the nature of what Christmas stories he gets himself to write, and the ones that work well. A 20th century novelist who wrote a famous series of novel set in the 18th century uses Christmas regularly: the close of the Poldark books show Christmas as practiced in the 18th century Cornwall had a meaning for him. Tonight I quote Tennyson from In Memoriam where he has grieved so for the loss of a beloved friend expresses feelings somewhat like mine this morning:

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show’d a token of distress?
No single tear, no mark of pain:
O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
No -– mixt with all this mystic frame,
Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

**************************

In going over Austen’s letters and then my blogs on the novels, and in context of the eras nearby, what I am again impressed with, is what is easy to find in the novels registered through many pictures in the films is Austen writing of letters, reading, writing, and dramatic uses of letters (far more than books). As my four stills chosen quickly and somewhat at random revealed — from a supposed biographical movie I have discussed hardly at all here.


Olivia Williams as a mature Austen writing Persuasion (Miss Austen Regrets, 2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes, directed Jeremy Lovering)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

Read Full Post »


From Peter Staughan’s 2015 Wolf Hall: actors dancing Renaissance dance, POV Cromwell

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible — Larissa MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel’s imagination, The New Yorker

Friends and readers,

It’s now two years since I wrote four blogs on the powerful mini-series by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall (featuring Mark Ryland and Claire Foy) (1-2: Fathers and sons;, 3-4, Stealth Heroine and a contemporary Man for All Seasons; 5-6, what human beings are capable of). Though I had read it and listened to Simon Slater’s brilliantly interpretative reading aloud of the whole text (available on CDs), where he makes Cromwell come out much less sympathetically than Mark Rylance’s nuance kind performance in the mini-series, I didn’t blog on the novel just by itself — which I often do for other books so filmed/adapted.

I’ve just had the great pleasure of re-reading the book with a class of retired adults, 20 or so people who appeared to enjoy it very much. I would like to tell a little of what they and I said, but am realizing that we found it such fun not because of any particular insight or examination of the text we did. The fun was in learning relevant history this way. So much we saw in the tyranny of Henry, the complicity of his courtiers, the sexual exploitation of women so germane; the psychologies of the characters we could recognize in ourselves or people close to us. Then they would go off and read history and find these stories re-hashed. The amorality of these characters. They were intrigued by the actual history, the characters, the style of the book (they said this and read passages aloud from the book they were especially taken with), its participation in historical romance. A very intelligent group of people, with interesting personal histories of travel, employment, court cases themselves.

***********************


Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1534)

As a historical novel:

They asked if all the characters represented people who once lived. Yes, I said. It’s the type of historical fiction which uses actual historical personages as chief characters (another is I, Claudius); all the people named existed and outwardly they did or lived more or less as we see the the characters here. Unnamed people are representative. This strict version invents almost no one. That’s hard, isn’t it? It’s like a sonnet, a 14 line poem which rhymes in a prescribed way; the villanelle that follows a prescribed obsessive pattern.

The crucial differences in the presentation of this Tudor Matter: Mantel chooses characters most people have ignored and dramatizes them through a fresh convincing, often ultimately compassionate interpretation. Not just Cromwell become hero, but Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, emotionally disabled: the pity for Mary Tudor as so twisted emotionally and her body so small and she in pain. Mary Boleyn generous-natured, frank and so become female fodder. Anne Boleyn now seen as not just sexually manipulative, and for a Protestant state, but seethingly ambitious, yet (like Cromwell, Wolsey) vulnerable so (in her case paranoaic), egoistic, losing perspective. Her helpless fall from favor. Thomas More now the fanatic and torturer. Wolsey the luxurious cat-like power-seeker, yet humane, a builder of schools.

All three books one continuous tight-knit story: a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell based on his papers and a school of Renaissance scholarship that began with G.Elton, to whose disciple, Mary Robertson, Mantel dedicates her novel. This big fat book is Act One of Cromwell’s story, ending in the murder of Thomas More (a contrast to him). The second, Bring Up the Bodies, Act Two, worked up as dramatic clashes between Cromwell and those he’s partly framing, in order to enable the king to murder Anne Boleyn (the stealth tragic heroine, with her wry, embittered alter ego, Mary Boleyn). Act Three, not yet finished (still under construction), The Mirror and the light, ending in the murder of Cromwell himself.

Fintan O’Toole says the appeal of this Cromwell is he is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell … of limited interest. His virtues — hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else–— … as mere bourgeois orthodoxy. Boring, contemptible, in a damning word, safe. But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes … precarious … everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment (Anne’s tablecloth removed). The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s … extraordinary strength. Except for the twist -— meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Wolf Hall, Act One, is made up of six parts — we read two a week. The structure so familiar from women’s writing, (l’ecriture-femme), is here: it’s cyclical, moving through repetition across eras. One realizes the title, Wolf Hall chosen to suggest how this is a world of wolves. Threes. Each of the six parts is in threes: an introductory chapter (sometimes shortish), a middle chapter (longish, the “meat” of the part), and coda (short chapter).

Part One builds the picture of Cromwell as an abused survivor of a boy, a fully mature man in the home he creates for himself and family, astonishingly a stable well educated kindly man, enacting the good father to the boys he takes in, as we see Wolsey with due irony behaved to him. “He was ever kind to me” Cromwell tells Henry in extenuation of Cromwell’s continued loyalty to Wolsey.

At Austin Friars – in very few pages Mantel has to establish a trusting loving relationship between Cromwell and his wife since she makes Cromwell grieve for his loss of Liz during much of this book. Decent feeling. Playful, sensible. Through her and her sister, Joanne we see how women looked at Anne Boleyn and the divorce — pitied Katherine for not having had a sons

Part Two all comes to grief: Wolsey ejected, the death of Cromwell’s beloved wife and daughters; the central long section (“Occult history”) explains how the ejection of Wolsey came to happen and includes extravagances of mythic history; a coda of George Cavendish (whose love for Wolsey makes him perpetually plangent) astonished to see Cromwell (also a mother figure) crying.

We talked of sources. Although she doesn’t admit them, Mantel was also strongly influenced by Alison Weir’s The Other Boleyn Girl, filmed twice, one released to the theaters with Scarlett Johanson as Mary Boleyn, and the other a BBC single episode with Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn (by Philippa Lowthorne). I read aloud to them Mary Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell when she was thrown out of court with William Stafford, a groom whom she seems to have loved (he valued her). Just extraordinary letter for a Renaissance women – I’ve read a lot of these at one time, most personal letters are guarded or hypocritical, so much verbiage out of which you may glimpse some truths. Correspondence was read by gov’t officials — there was no privacy. MB paid someone to hand-carry it to Cromwell: that she could write such a letter to him speaks well of him, for the relationship must’ve been open to it, invited it. Weir disdains it and talks of it stupid — yes she is not phonily performing (guarded, hypocritical) which is Weir’s criteria I suppose. But Mantel no more favors Mary Boleyn than Cromwell.

Cromwell was a controversial figure and had been bad-mouthed (not too much to say it was snobbery too) with an apotheosis in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Leo McKern memorably this corrupt bully. So we have to unlearn a bit: not only was he beheaded because the king grew angry at the ugliness of Anne of Cleves, Cromwell was sincerely protestant and he succeeded largely in altering the composition of the English structure of gov’t – as is now being tried before our very eyes in the US and has been going on some say since the mid-1970s with Trump and this rump republican congress the fruits of it. How do you affect change: Cromwell did it bit by bit, each time cagily appealing to the self-interest of whoever had the reigns of what he was altering. He left many many letters, diplomat’s letters but write something down and it gives you away.

Mantel has made every effort to make us respect and like Thomas Cromwell but when it comes to the trial and beheading she does not whitewash the man. Six young man: we are shown how awful they are to those beneath them, but should they have been beheaded? it was Thomas Cromwell who made the evidence (if there was any) into a case which could withstand a trial. In other words, if you think Anne was just about wholly innocent, he framed her and killed them all. Unlike More’s behavior to those he burned alive and oversaw the beheading of, there is no evidence for torture. Still, part of the blackening of his character, paradoxically is while until the 20th century Anne Boleyn was often presented as guilty at least of sex with the courtiers, Cromwell was vilified. What Mantel does in the book and the film even more Straughan present Cromwell as doing this unwillingly; he gets no pleasure from it; he looks grave, unhappy, and after she’s dead when Henry welcomes him with open arms, he looks terrified. But he did it. In Bring up the Bodies we also see him exploit women and in general he’s more of a villain, hardening of his character as time goes on. The book takes a much shorter time. No more liaison with Johanne, Rafe and Helen are gone, Richard in another house. We can project this process might go further in the final act Mantel is said to be writing: The Mirror and the Light.


Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey (2015 Wolf Hall)

Wolsey – what kind of man is he presented as? – long effective career in church, slowly promoted up – destroyed or neutralized the positions of those around him; what religious beliefs did he have? You might say Cromwell was a son of Wolsey – a brilliant foreign policy person, diplomat, powerful administrator, he built major benefactor of arts, humanities and education. He projected numerous reforms, with some success in areas such as finance, taxation educational provision and justice. He reformed taxes—opposite of what’s happening today; before him all owed the same, now poorer much less and Wolsey collected much more for the king’s wars and luxurious entertainments, But Wolsey failed him in oen particular? The diplomatic situation was hard: Catherine a daughter of the Aragons; Charles V her nephew, and in a way Charles V besieged Rome, and took over Clement’s power for a while

Wolsey and Cromwell talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,
Cromwell: “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”
To Wolsey now in bed: “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey: “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies.

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem out-side the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, com-promised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

There is his true son, Rafe, who does not have bad dreams, p 26 – we shall see how he came to live with and revere Cromwell; how did he comes to take in Rafe – it’s in the long occult history, back history :so touching every moment: Cromwell as mother – look with me on page 106-7, well into chapter

Part Three introduces the court characters, the king, Anne and Mary Boleyn, deepens Cromwell and Wolsey’s relationship (“Entirely Beloved Cromwell”), people lost along the way become ghosts haunting you (“The Dead Complain of Their Burial”).

What kind of person is Henry in this book? We talked of his sexual anxiety, his apparent timidity; how he believed the old supposedly Biblical culture. When Anne proved no virgin, and he realized how much she knew about sex, how to please him, paradoxically but in character he begins to mistrust her. Jealous. She is bitter herself. Extraordinary sequence of Cromwell taken from bed and re-interpreting king’s dream. All imagined but captures deeper truths about these people — including Cranmer who is so hesitant, young men around king obeying his slightest whims. Cromwell comes home to be haunted by Wolsey, by Liz. I read aloud from Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes on Wolsey; Shakespeare’s Henry VIII had he only served his God before his king …; Wyatt’s poem on Anne as like this deer so alluring.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change …

Part Four dramatizes how the world is a profoundly dangerous place (you must “arrange your face”), with its long center showing people seeking love (“What shall I do for love?”), discovering enacting cruelty, torture (the burning of the old woman, a Lollard so crazed), treachery under hats. The family groups formed, with Cromwell emerging as Henry’s man (the speech to Henry Percy about where the world is ruled from a case in point).


Said to be Mary Boleyn (reprinted in Alison Weir)

Part Five with Anne now queen (“Anna Regina”), become paranoiac, losing perspective. Contrasts: she and Henry to Rafe’s calm integrity and love for Helen, ex-laundress, widow, all calm competence; Cranmer and his barmaid Margaret, he too like Rafe could not help but love her; the desperate Mary seeking a protector. “The Devil’s spit” (middle chapter) exposes the underbelly of women’s subject position: Elizabeth Barton’s malevolence allows her to take a place on the stage. Ends in Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell’s outwardly iron self.

Master Secretary,
After my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that am a poor banished creature, this shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure that it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the King’s Highness and the Queen’s Grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge.
But one thing, good Master Secretary, consider: that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part, I saw so much honesty in him that I loved him as well as he did me; and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty.

So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubt but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the King’s gracious favor and the Queen’s. For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well, nor a more honest man. And besides that, he is both come of ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his Grace’s pleasure) to do the King service as any young gentleman in his court.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that well I know you do bear to all my blood, though for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the King’s Grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do.
And, good Master Secretary, sue for us to the King’s Highness, and beseech his Highness, which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us; and that it would please his Grace, of his goodness, to speak to the Queen’s Grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her Grace is so highly displeased with us both that,without the King be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigor and sue for us, we are never likely to recover her Grace’s favor, which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake, help us, for we have been now a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to call it again; wherefore it is the more alms to help us. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, Master Secretary, for my little time, I have spied so much honesty to be in him that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

And I beseech you, good Master Secretary, pray my Lord my father and my Lady my mother to be good to us, and to let us have their blessings, and my husband their goodwill; and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my Lord of Norfolk [her uncle] and my Lord my brother to be good to us. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us. But if with any pain I could take my life [that] I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray you to report by me, and you shall find my writing true, and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor, banished man for an honest and goodly cause. And seeing that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folk, I trust it shall be our chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the [Lord] God, Who send you health and heart’s ease.

Scribbbled with her ill hand, who is your poor,
humble suitor, always to command,
Mary Stafford.

We talked of the attitude towards women in the novel: they get a very rough deal; Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth Barton Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern fig-ures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Ca-tholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact. Queen, the devil’s spit is Elizabeth Barton; that old woman burnt to death that Cromwell witnesses as a young (288-93) – it’s in the fourth part


Holbein’s 1527 Thomas More (close-up of his face)

Part Six ending in execution of More, and the sexually anxious king turned against Anne and towards Jane Seymour, is a disquisition on power (with which it begins), who has it, where it comes from. Mary kicked out; I read her letter aloud.

John Schofield’s The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. The questioning of the previous factional interpretation begins with the great scholar Geoffrey Elton, and culminates with the work of Mary Robertson to whom this book is dedicated. All very detailed, not overtly entertaining. I’ll send along just one essay by Mary Robertson and it shows how Cromwell operated in the West Country. Since Mantel’s book there has been a revolution in how to regard Cromwell popularly; she has also been attacked by scholars and critics for being anti-catholic: she is an ex-Catholic.

The book was discussed in the US by people on opposite sides of religious politics with as I recall, an arch conservative – of all people – Jewish – attacking the book and her, “maddeningly” great fiction to distort the record so. Krautheimer likes having Sir Thomas More as a saint. Krautheimer wrote in several places attacked Mantel, he was so exercised against this portrait of More as an utterly cold egoistic torturer, fanatic, anything but the humane man for all seasons Bolt dreamed up. Mantel is closer because even though More wrote those great books he did torture and willingly, superfluously seeking people out, while Cromwell avoided it as bad policy. He’d have been against slavery in the 19th century as bad policy. I read aloud parts of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, from More’s Utopia and book on Comfort in Time of Tribulation (written while in prison).

Her interest is as much in religion as culture and politics; it’s fictionalized biography as well as fictionalized history; inspired anthropology as well as extraordinary artistry on all levels. I think it’s a masterpiece or masterwork like Swift’s Waterlands or Scott’s Raj Quartet taken altogether, at the same time as you can discern a cynical appraisal of what formula and content will attract attention, make her big money.

I think it’s more than that and wrote a paper on this – Journal of Popular TV didn’t care for it as too learned. But they liked my thesis that Tudor matter appeals because it presents “men under dire pressure” who transgress sexual and masculine norms. We have these enormously strong women and men who are allowed to dress flamboyantly, enacting abjection in poetry and stories, were sycophants at court and themselves beheaded. It’s this freedom of men to come out of their usual boring clothes and compete with flamboyant women who often win. It’s the costumes. George Boleyn said to have been gay, Smeaton the musician (Mary Queen of Scots also involved herself with a musician, David Rizzio and he was slaughtered. At the end of Mantel’s second book we have had quite a number of men beheaded, six for sexual transgression. Latest idea is that Anne may have been guilty with one of Henry’s close men – Henry Norris, Francis Bryan, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, George Boleyn also murdereed. Francis Weston. Elizabeth beheaded Essex – rightly.

*********************

As erotic historical romance


From 2008 The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe, Anne and Mary in the tower (Jodhi May and Natasha Mcelhone)

We began with Mantel’s choice of prologue: from John Skelton’s masque, Magnificence. What’s the effect of this framing? Is this tragedy, comedy or satire? For Cromwell’s contemporaries for Shakespeare a question about genre counts … What’s interesting is the allegory is brought back inside the book. Anne Boleyn is Peseverance in the masque we first her at – dancing with Percy 45-46), we are told in Cromwell’s dream mind Cavendish, George, is virtuous Councilor, Wolsey Decayed Magnificence, he Cromwell is Tempter. If you go to page 14, you find Cromwell supposedly remembering she was Beauty or Kindness (a generosity and openness of spirit). When we think of allegory, we think of simple words. Not the Elizabethans.

People in the class talked of other books “like this one.” One woman in the class gave me a copy of her published poetic narrative verse book, Barbara Goldberg, her Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the short

A 64 page historical romance made up of soliloquies. It is remarkable. Barbara’s sources are much reading in history of the 8th century and earlier in France and Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Medieval Myths. Barbara also used books of troubadour poetry — including the few by women. Her introduction tells of her archetypal Jungian interpretation which uses fairy tales which correspond to the legends and history. It has illustrations which are wood-cut like and remind me of those accompanying a volume of ghost stories by Wharton. Norma Lorre Goodrich takes a feminist or feminine view of these myths, but it’s not acknowledged as such; she puts me in mind of Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated. The story as Barbara sees it is of a girl with clubfoot whose housekeeper or evil servant substitutes her own daughter in the marriage bed of Pepin the short.

The soliloquies are modern women’s poetry — not free verse, but the elegant Anthony Hecht kind of thing. The story is about the misery of these women — when the servant’s daughter is substituted for the princess and she has to go to bed with Pepin, Goldberg writes of the experience as just awful, terrible, ugly and it’s convincing. Hatred is fostered between Aliste who is the daughter substituted for Berta by her mother, Margiste; the substitution is discovered and Margiste is tortured and then burnt at the stake. She justifies herself. We feel the intensity of these women’s bodies so hurt. The true daughter, Berta, is transferred to Pepin — poor woman, her broadfoot was partly the cause of what happened; a knife would have been take to cut her foot or leg off — the sense is a clubfoot but hard to say. She is disabled and no more wants to go to bed with Pepin and have his children than Agiste. Berta has a mother Blanchefleur whose name reminds me of Arthurian matter. The core here is the erotic physical experience in bed — very like Outlander – only here not idealized at all, forced. A mother forcing her daughter to go to bed with a king is not a joke: even if the man weren’t awful, it’s horrible to be forced this way to give your body to someone to do with as he pleases:

Aliste Considers Her Position

Who was there to turn to when I found
his morning gift, a handsome brooch
encrusted with pearls, on my pillow?
Him? Not him, no morning gift, pink
and strutting, boasting of the seed
he felt spring from him with the force
of ten thousand steeds. When he forced
himself on me, pink, boastful, bent
to suckle like a piglet in his greed,
who was there? He threw his head back,
shouted, boasting of his seed, my morning
gift, and who was there to turn to? I set
my lips in imitation of a smile, spread
my limbs like any sow, but who was there?
Could I proclaim, pink and strutting, ‘This.
This is who I am, your morning gift, servant
girl who cannot sign her name. And do you
love her still? Would you leave a gift,
a morning gift, a handsome brooch, on her
pillow?’ Who was there, who, to turn to?

Not Mother, hopping about with glee, fingers
greasy from palace meat. She pokes my ribs
and cackles, ‘We fooled him, eh? We two
make quite a team.’ when, hankering for all I’ve lost, I think
of home and sister and the poor dumb sheep
I used to shear. Sister [the one she was substituted for]. Sister. Poor
dumb sheep I use to sear. Berta and I
once laughed ourselves to sleep I shuddered
when I saw her heart, darkly gleaming in
Mother’s palm. She hopped about with glee
then tossed it down her throat. ‘There,’
she said,’That’s done,’ her fingers greasy
from the meat. And poked my ribs, while I,
dumb sheep, must play the part of Queen.

This is what Mary Boleyn feels when in the book she must “service” Henry at night because Anne’s pregnancy must be protected.


Charity Wakefield as Mary talking about how she’s used, Mark Rylance as Cromwell feeling for her (2012 Wolf Hall)

I wish I had known about books like this when I read medieval poetry by women, Christine de Pisan, Marie of France, Silence (attributed to a woman, anonymous) and the women’s troubadour poems. My sense is Goldberg is reacting to these — she is by origin German and French-American and the book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother.

Lastly they were interested in Mantel and a few people said they had read other of Mantel’s books and liked them very much. So I close on what I said of her: see “Answering the Heart’s Needs: Giving Up the Ghost

She is the daughter of Irish Catholic Immigrants into England. he daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, Hilary Mary Mantel was born on July 6, 1952, and raised in a small provincial town in the north of England. Educated at convent schools and joining a monthly processional to the church for confession, she struggled to understand her connection to a faith that seemed at once punitive and alienating. “From about the age of four,” she writes in her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost, “I had begun to believe I had done something wrong. Confession didn’t touch some essential sin. There was something inside me that was beyond remedy and beyond redemption.” She sees herself as having rebelled against systematic suppression by rules all the more adament because never articulated. She met her husband, Gerald McEwan years ago and they went to Sheffield together to law school We don’t need women.

Her physical is important; from age 20 attacked by debilitating illness and told it was psychosomatic, stress caused by over-ambition. Unbearable pain led her to do research herself and came up with a diagnosis of endometriosis; she had a hysterectomy which is actually one of the treatments but she was still in pain and hormones suddenly made her hugely fat. This happens to other women who put IUVs in themselves – she lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband at one point and didn’t go out anyway.

The first writing I ever read by her was a remarkable attack on the human dimensions of the medical establishment, the way it works by intimidation, indifference, how little they often know and how they are most interested in their place in the organization (as Cromwell might say) She immerses herself in research, in the past and writing becomes her compulsion, her liberty. There was a separation from her husband, she really hit a terrible nadir.

By the end of their stay in Africa, she had produced a huge manuscript. But after she returned to London, she found that it was not easy to find a publisher for the book she titled A Place of Greater Safety. Before A Place of Greater Safety finally appeared in 1992, Mantel had established her reputation with four other novels: Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) and Vacant Possession (1986), satirical thrillers about a macabre mother-daughter relationship; Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), about a Western woman’s disorientation in the Middle East, based on her own experiences in Saudi Arabia in 1982. She comes into her own when she becomes at once political and personal in A Change of Climate (1994) it considers Ralph and Anna Eldred, recently returned from apartheid South Africa, where they had administered a church mission. Ralph took the post initially to flee from his domineering father, who forbade him to pursue a career in geology. Both he and Anna struggle to justify their good works in the context of a religion from which they feel increasingly distant and a political situation that increasingly sees them as part of an endemic problem of colonialism. After they are forced out of South Africa, they accept a remote post in Botswana. Here, too, they become victims of political discontent and unrest. A disgruntled servant abducts their infant twins; only one, the girl, is ever found, and Ralph and Anna flee to the safety of home. How a woman is connected deeply to her body, her identity is her body is An Experiment in Love (1995), a law student who becomes anorexic. Her memoir Giving up the Ghost (that’s another one I’ve read).

Odd historical novels, The Giant, O’Brien – -18th century very tall man. We have a woman in drag, arguably Cromwell is a womanly man – but also stealth heroines I call them: Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn especially. Anne Boleyn fascinates her as she has others.

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize how this book is also historical romance but Barbara’s book and the interest in Mantel’s non-historical novel showed they got that without being told.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Friends and readers,

I read with a class on 19th century Women of Letters this past term Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The History of a Scotch Family 70 Years Ago, and am gratified to report the class as a whole liked it very much: some called it a “page-turner;” it was a class of 35 and I’d say about 25 stayed the course (it’s was a sort of college course where there is no exam, no papers, mostly made up of retired adults, towards the end all but one were women), and most of them read Kirsteen, and were eager to discuss it. Over on Trollope and his Contemporaries (the one yahoo list I moderate, apparently still going despite all yahoo’s software failures), one of the first non-Trollope novels we read together, after a period of just Trollope and then trying to reconstitute the list in new directions was her last Carlingford book, Phoebe Junior, and it brought the list to life again. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introductions to the Virago press publications of two of the Carlingfords, Salem Chapel and The Perpetual Curate. Miss Majoribanks, yet another, is the one book feminist readers read and often praise, the Carlingford novels because of their original connection to Trollope (as about church politics in the dissenting vein) are still known and some in print (they were her success among English readers). People who read gothic works are aware of her masterpiece ghost story, The Beleaguered City, and her uncanny shorter ghost stories.

I write this blog tonight because earlier this week Oliphant came up on a face-book discussion group page, Readers of Fine Literature, where someone was so enthusiastic about Oliphant’s Hester, as extraordinary (the first time I read it I thought it a masterpiece that should be assigned alongside the usual “great Victorian novels”), that the posting prompted “ayes” and citations of books by Oliphant different people enjoyed, or denials of Oliphant as filled with pleasure, with vows never to try an Oliphant again. I want tonight to describe briefly or add three more heroine’s texts to those I’ve analysed here on these blogs already (Phoebe Junior, Hester, The Marriage of Elinor). Agnes, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Carr (a four volume work) and Kirsteen, and to suggest how her very late ghost story, The Library Window is yet another and a comment on her career. They are novels comparable in subtlety and interest to those of Trollope, Gaskell and Eliot. Their criticism of marriage and presentation of women’s lives put them together with Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved. Their uses of irony show her early immersion in Austen (her first two Carlingford novels have characters named after Austen, situations reminiscent of hers. For her life and work, start at the Victorian Web.

It’s best to be either brief or write at length for a magazine. Here we must opt for concision. Why? Oliphant writes realistic novels which are not easy to describe as they often move episodically. Their subversive and riveting material comes in inward interstices and twists and turns of stories whose endings are often unexpected. When they happen, these feel inevitable and as coming from the situation as it’s evolved or been all along. Most are almost strongly unsentimental. Agnes is very like Elinor in that the heroine makes a bad marriage and the novel is about how she copes — or doesn’t. Customs and laws inflict problems on Agnes which her ne’er-do-well husband doesn’t share, but when her husband dies she finds she loses all personal happiness; her child is taken from her; complex feelings most novels didn’t go near until very recently are the subject matter.

I find her Ladies Lindores and its close sequel Lady Carr compelling throughout; I could hardly put the first volume down. Taken together, they form (as Merryn Williams writes in her great Critical Biography of Oliphant) a story about human indifference to one another, cruelty and “torture” (Oliphant’s word for inward pain). The father of the family inherits a peerage and becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters in his insistence the two daughters marry money so Caroline, sensitive, gentle is sold to a brutal man with her mother unable to protect her from his violence. Oliphant breaks a tremendous taboo when she has Caroline cry out in gladness when her husband is accidentally killed. She remarries the young man she had originally longed for (Lady Carr) but ends up alienated because the man she had so dreamed of turns out to be superficial, a dilettante, egoistic. Its Scottish landscape is deeply appealing, and she has Walter Scott in mind as she describes Scottish culture more wryly and realistically. Italy and London are described well too.

Kirsteen is the book that (like Miss Marjoribanks) seems to speak most to women more today. It is the story of a young girl’s flight from an enforced marriage in Scotland, from a tyrant father, a life of utter devaluation of herself as anything other than an obedient woman within a family geared to making white men the owners and rulers of society, and her successful entry in London into a seamstress business, where she invents a satisfying life for herself as seamstress and co-partner. Oliphant’s women might seem better off when they start out disenchanted — like Kirsteen’s sister, willing to marry the older man Kirsteen flees because he will provide title, home, children and he is gentle — she hasn’t that low expectations but lives with his lack of status in London and ends content enough to be with Kirsteen’s neighbors at Kirsteen’s shop — the truth being she doesn’t care about much but her rank, status, creature comforts, and convenience. But such people are not to be depended upon at all; Kirsteen’s younger sister might have ended with a man who forced an elopement without marriage on her; only Kirsteen wanted to act with integrity to force him away; ironically he is eliminated by the violent father, a murder he gets away with (a ploy that in Ladies Lindores too eliminates Caroline’s first husband, and for which an ordinary loyal Walter Scott-kind of servant almost pays with years of life in prison). Kirsteen’s quest is survival on terms of self-determination. She undertakes a frightening journey alone to find a place where she can be free to be herself. She reminded me of Bronte’s Villette but does not become enthralled to a man once she lands a position. Wendy Jones in her “Margaret Oliphant’s Women who want too much,” describes all three of these (Phoebe, Hester, and Kirsteen) wonderfully well. The flaw in Kirsteen is she succeeds too easily; in travel she is never sexually harassed, and much of the plot-design’s ins and outs turns on her sisters’ experience of marriage as refuge, sheer status (hollow within), and escape from rape and a life of the equivalent of prostitution.

If one includes Phoebe and Miss Marjoribanks, all five are books which Oliphant wrote later in life. Her great strength in them all is how she explores and illuminates everyday painful situations people rarely face up to, which can end up destroying or making their characters. She’s an insightful critic of other realistic novelists. She wrote one of the finest critical articles on Austen in the 19th century, in her review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt (Jane Austen), from which I quote a paragraph which offers a glimpse of the austere power of her own mind:

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter

These (and other) fine novels about contain incisive penetrating critiques of how women are without needed rights as inescapably and necessarily responsible adults, are led or forced to make bad marriages, while males are led to conform to destructive norms for all. I suggest she is sometimes not enjoyed because of her disillusioned views on marriage; she hardly believes love for another can exist, or it is only the rare spirit who is capable of sustaining it. I find her strengthening the way I find Samuel Johnson or other truth-tellers who use irony and open identification to convey compassion.


“The Library Window”

I end on “Library Window” (which so puzzled me when I first read it, as the reader will see if he or she clicks on the link above), since I’ve at long last realized it’s a late meditation by Oliphant on the distance she has had to keep herself from some ideals of writing and reading, and her deep yearning for approval as strongly ethical. We see also how restricted young gentry girls were kept, how closely monitored. Once Aunt Mary thinks whatever was wrong with our heroine is getting worse the mother sweeps her away. Is she ever named? She remains nameless as does Dickens’s signalman. It can be said to be a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Intense yearning: aunt says the meaning of the vision (which we are given to believe Aunt also sees) “It’s a longing all your life after –- it is a looking for what never comes. Sybilline witchlike but kind Lady Carnbee says “the imagination is a great deceiver, the heart, the eye. But if gift deceives, it consoles.”

What happens in “The Library Window?” A young scottish girl is sent for her health to stay with her aunt Mary and finds herself pinned down by imposed schedule, feminine occupations but her aunt, unlike her mother, gives her a lot of time to read. They live on high street of St Rules, St Andrews so a university not far. She becomes gradually absorbed until she sees a male at work incessantly and he sees her and after her visit to the party comes to the window and waves and then blank forever more. Coming home from death of her husband many years before, Oliphant had thought she saw him in the crowd and for a poignant moment thought he’ll help her and he vanished. There is a a bond between this unfulfilled writer seen in the window and herself. The portrait is modeled on a legend of Scott started by his son-in-law Lockhart.

Tamar Heller (“Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”) thinks it strongly feminist: the man was murdered by the brothers of a girl he tried to court and was above him. Yes, that’s there too. This is the life of the artist and scholar Oliphant felt closed to her, she couldn’t achieve a Middlemarch because she had no GHLewes to shelter, to negotiate, to give her time. In Framley Parsonage we can see in Mark Robarts a certain flagellation by Trollope who also sacrificed much, and sold his soul in the marketplace. With Oliphant in this story, it’s not just that she’s trapped, but lonely and longing — this is poignantly tragically seen in Hester. Is it fair to say the girl of the story is shattered by the experience. A continual play of light, or perception, of different kinds of reality are at work. The theme her life as a writing career.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The Door (2016, Istvan Szabo, Helen Mirren as Emerence)

Then she actually tried to leave, throwing herself out of the bed …. if she live to old age, must probably sink more … Emerence, The Door, Miss Bates, Emma

Friends and readers,

I’ve been listening to this translated Hungarian text byMagda Szabo read by Sian Thomas and occasionally reading it myself for the last few weeks, and it is has had mesmerizing effect on me. It helped me to think about it in terms of Austen’s Emma: the narrator is often as clueless and blundering as Emma; much irony directed at both women, and there are intriguing parallels.

The narrative is a book-long monologue by a woman never named, an apparently well-educated so middling to upper class novelist (“lady novelist” others call her) who was prevented from publishing for too many years under the communist regime, but since some unexplained change, can not only publish but has become popular, widely read, wins a (unnamed) prize. It comes across very strongly: it’s one of these semi-autobiographical novels so common in our age; perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is whether we are to read it as a novel or autobiography, probably both. This skein of this story in outline is that of Magda Szabo who hired a local more working class woman, child of a carpenter but with what we might call a peasant’s mentality, to serve her in just the way the second presence in the book does. Her name Emerence. Emerence cleans for a living, perhaps paid by the government for caring for several buildings and the street — she endlessly shovels the continual snow Hungary seems afflicted by — but goes well beyond that, not only hiring herself out to individuals to housekeep, clean, shop, and cook, but acting as an angel of charity with gifts of food in a beautiful crystal bowl to anyone in the neighbor who is ill, depressed, momentarily (I suppose she cannot this up) broke.

The story is that of their shared lives (so Magda would have us believe) their relationship with intense emotional ups and downs, fierce quarrels (at least on Emerence’s side), deep confidences by Emerence in moments of high passion to the narrator over many years. While the narrator complains Emerence is so private, we learn very little about the narrator’s private life. Emerence’s tales of herself are more than a little improbable, like some mad folk tale from the Renaissance: her twin siblings under the care are hit by lightening standing both a tree, both at once turned to ash after a series of deprivations felt as nightmares are inflicted on Emerence. Her mother’s first husband dies, the second is a tyrant; after the death of her twins, she throws herself down a well. I felt very angry with the stance on the side of atavism, an archaic woman, Emerence by name, someone often raging, furious, deeply resentful, who (paradoxically) seems to spend her life serving others almost selflessly.

Yet the narrator never endorsed Emerence’s rage or said it was understandable, what she seemed to admire was Emerence’s intransigence, her refusal to be tolerant of others at least in theory. Magda evinces or tries to a modern enlightened tolerant attitude towards all about her, we could call it religious humanism, for (paradoxically) Magda is religious to the point of unexpected beliefs: she goes to church weekly because she believes she can get into contact with beloved dead relatives and friends, especially her parents while there. Magda does not always believe Emerence’s told autobiography: the catastrophic disasters come too thick, fast, in extremis: for example, deep cruelty her traditional family subjected her to as when they believed she had given birth to an illegitimate child while the truth was she rescued a Jewish baby from probable extermination. Magda has bad troubles: her husband becomes very ill, and has to be taken to hospital to have a many-houred operation and then recuperates very slowly. (Szabo’s husband dies relatively young.). In the modern way.


With Martina Gedeck as Magda

Why do I say the novel seems to side with archaic anti-intellectualism? Emerence’s fits of corrosive scolding are worst when she begins to castigate the novelist for not doing any work in her life. To Emerence, intellectual work is no work at all. Real worthy work is always physical. So my life would by Emerence be called one of indulged luxurious idleness — I also hire people to clean my house but not daily, once very 3 to 4 weeks for an hour and twenty minutes or so. At the same time, the implied author or novel insofar as she/it can vindicates Emerence’s assessment of what is immediately happening at any given time while often it’s ironically clear that Magda is a sort of Emma Woodhouse.

She sees Emerence mistakenly, obtusely. She persists in the idea that Emerence adores her, loves her, cares tenderly for her. Emerence laughs this to scorn, insults, does spiteful things, but all this is dismissed because forsooth, Emerence keeps working so hard. She is paid by more than money: she gets to be important by serving others, in effect seems to control and dominate them. Her circle of friends apart from her employer includes a woman who kills herself, Polette. Emerence does not try to persuade this woman to live but enables her to hang herself, write the letter of explanation for her. Asked why, she says the woman wanted to die but shapes this explanation angrily: how dare Polette be dissatisfied? were not her friends doing all they could by being her friend, helping her, did they have it any better. Well if Polette than wanted to die, let her. The narrator is horrified at what seems Emerence’s heartlessness, except that we can see how upset Emerence is as she speaks, and when accused of helping to kill Polette, Emerence bursts in hysterical grief. She was hiding this.

She is a great one for hiding, is Emerence. As the novels opens the narrator tells us how she is haunted by dreams of a door. The door is Emerence’s: most of her life since Magda has known her, Emerence would not let anyone in her house. The door barricades the world outside. Over the years, Magda learns that Emerence once had a cat with her, but the cat was tortured to death by a neighbor who believed the cat killed his pigeon, and that Emerence helped the cat. When Emerence accosted and blamed him, he killed a cat she had adopted as a substitute. Clearly Emerence has to protect herself. We learn much later that eventually she had nine cats in her house with her. In one of her stories Emerence claims that a powerful (unnamed but probably modeled on a real Hungarian politician who went into exile more than once) took refuge with her since she was so obscure and loved and respected her very much. She’s no proof. The house seems to have beautiful furniture which Emerence took over after the Jewish family (the Grossmans) whose child Emerence took were deported by train to a camp where they were murdered. The narrator is at first indignant at Emerence for profiting from this family’s horrific loss.

Once when the narrator is invited to give a talk at a conference in the village where she was born, she asks Emerence to come with her as Emerence comes from the same village. They will go to the cemetery together. At first Emerence says maybe, then no, then reluctantly (it seems) shows up and goes with the narrator, but somehow stays away from the cemetery. Our narrator finds the gravestones of Emerence’s family and it is after this Emerence tells the narrator the story of the baby she adopted and was ostracized for. But she won’t go and look or wander among the graves as does the narrator.

Time and time again I identified with Emerence — the woman who seemingly has never learned to, does not understand how one performs manipulatively. In my neighborhood I began to give food to what seemed a stray or lost cat, and briefly tried to find out whose the cat was and if someone would help rescue it. The lies one woman told, the pretenses of the others that they knew all about local Humane societies which would of course come out to help take away the cat, would never kill it (“euthanize” was their term), and one woman’s letter in which she tried to embarrass me because she was irritated lest her lawn be urinated or shat upon by this cat riled me up. This level of bonding was never recognized by the narrator, again reminding me of Austen’s Emma’s attitude toward Jane Fairfax. Emerence tells the narrator she is clueless (or some such word) because she has led such a privileged life, even if her work was not published for years. If Emma pays lip-service to Jane’s literal destitution (dead parents, no money of her own, must go out and endure the stifling humiliated life of a governess (read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey sometime), her behavior is callously cruel: spreading rumors that can only hurt Jane’s reputation (her social capital such as it is), talking about her behind her back half-mockingly, and worst of all, indignant that Jane does not spill her soul. Why should Jane? I cannot say I ever bonded with the narrator, but then I most of the time don’t care for Emma.


Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma: Emma (Romola Garai) comes upon Jane (Laurie Pyper) fleeing and feels for her

Emerence makes a feast for a friend she doesn’t identify. She goes to enormous trouble for this. She obtains from our narrator permission to do this in the narrator’s house. What happens? the friend doesn’t show. I wanted to feel for Emerence. She was was so irascible and bitter it was hard to. Turns out the friend is this adopted daughter Emerence saved who now lives in the US. She had planned to come to dinner because she had a business trip to Hungary, but the business trip was called off. Who would spend that much money and time just for a dinner. This friend-daughter told this to the narrator when she came to dinner at the narrator’s house. Perfectly reasonable in the contemporary world thinks the narrator. But is it? should not Emerence bes someone special? not be stood up.

Emerence was left with all this food. Gentle reader, I have been stood up this way. The trope is the archetypal broken feast. I would show up. I’ve seen and myself spent large sums just to travel to see someone or attend a party. Not that I was thanked for it: months later the person took against me (as if she resented my kindness) but was not at all angry with another “friend” who would not take 10 minutes of her time in NYC out to meet this woman who would have traveled from a remote outpost in Brooklyn anywhere anytime. But this other woman had prestige (including was standoffish which makes her more valuable). Like Emerence, I have over the years hardly ever (remember Mary Crawford said the synonym for this is “never”) been invited to dinner anywhere individually. Of course the narrator understands. She probably goes out to dinner regularly. Not Emerence. She has lunch in a kitchen by herself. Or eats on her porch with her peers keeping the door on the house firmly shut lest they see it. Who knows what they’d say? I was (rightly) mortified by the outside of my house until I renovated it ($60,000 is what it probably cost me) this year.

Yet at the close of the novel, when the narrator goes on about how she is responsible for Emerence’s death, and if that’s too strong, certainly for her misery and tragic losses leading up to it, I couldn’t quite see it. Emerence (we are told) is about 80 when the novel opens and she has just died, and the narrator is having these bad dreams about doors, especially Emerence’s, which she was not permitted to pass. What happened was she sickened badly from some (unnamed) fatal disease, perhaps heart trouble, and would not see a doctor. It appears that for a few years she had refused to work so constantly for our narrator and now she just retires into her house to die. Neighbors bring food which she takes in on the other side of the door, just sticking out her hand. Somehow the narrator learns Emerence is laying on the floor paralyzed. Terrible smells begin to come from the house. The narrator has just won her prize and is so busy running to do TV shows where (she tells us) she makes a fool of herself by imitating the bland hypocrisies of everyone else when she had planned to tell bald truths. Be herself. (But who is she?)

So after Magda has implied how much she loathes interference by gov’t or impersonal agencies, she obtains a doctor’s services, a lawyer and team to come to Emerence’s house, herself tricks Emerence (this does take effort) to open her door. Emerence has threatened to axe anyone coming in with a hatchet. She has one. Nonetheless, half-paralyzed, old, weak from lack of ood, Emerence is grabbed and hauled away to tests, hospitals, treatment and her life seems saved. But as in a film I saw earlier this year, A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Bachman), where people from gov’t agencies and making money, burn down houses they say are unfit to live in, take away crippled people they say they have no money to support outside the institution and so devastate the people’s existences, so the people from the agency in The Door couldn’t care less about Emerence’s feelings, what has meaning for her, whom and what she loves: they fumigate or throw out everything that has rotted in the house over the weeks; don’t try to rescue the cats (four of whom end up as corpses). She is mortified by the exposure of her lack of dignity. Her ending is pathetic and while the novel can be read as comic, it is more often (if you think about it, pathetic).


The cats are in the film, seen eating from nine dishes, here on the garbage cans? — is it a comedy, do the cats here represent the two women?

How could Magda have tricked her this way? then run away to her TV show interview? Emerence seems to get better and interacts with everyone but the narrator. When the narrator arrives, Emerence puts a cloth over her face, pretends not to know her. Emerence can no longer work and this narrator has offered to take her in. Emerence is having none of it. Wisely probably as the husband would be rendered miserable by her living there, if only because his wife (our narrator) is obsessed by her. Emerence is all spite, the narrator all quiet sorrow. Again I thought of Emma picking out the best, the very best arrowroot to send to Jane and it was rejected summarily. Emma came by with her carriage to offer Jane a ride. It would have indeed killed Jane to get in as it was Emma who had stirred up the antagonism between Jane and her clandestine lover, Frank, breaking them up — if she had no pride in front of him what would happen if she married him with his insensitive ways? Well Emma meant well, was doing the right thing, no? Emma never meant to break them up. Emma didn’t know they were engaged. She wants to help Jane. And let’s not forget at the end of Emma, Austen so far forgives Emma that she has Jane come out and gush in front of Emma, all apologies for not being open and all gratitude. I so loathe that scene.

It will be seen that this is very much a woman’s novel, a study of a relationship between a privileged upper class employer and a lonely woman utterly dependent on her labor who no one helped much. Emerence hates the church because when she went the other women giving out charity gave her a fancy dress. She took this as their comment on her clothes. Their respect for her to her became hypocrisy. What are they in church for? and anyway how can one believe in a reasonable benevolent or any God or meaning given experience? She makes out a will leaving what she claims is enormous amounts of money to her brother’s son (a nephew she doesn’t get along with) and the narrator and now the narrator has spoilt this bequest. It’s been written more often as about two women friends, peers who are very bad for one another, frenemies: recently Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and three more novels centering around a relationship. Margaret Atwoood’s Cat’s Eye. And of course Harriet and Emma in Austen’s emma. Novels of mothers and daughters. A few women in the book club saw Magda as playing the role of mother to the narrator. Marianne Hirsvh writes a long intelligent about the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in women’s books (The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism). What woman writer worth her salt doesn’t write books about pairs of women at some point?

But it’s made to carry larger meanings.

Including the relationship of fiction to autobiography. After all if this is a fiction, Szabo has made the narrator and Emerence up. The joke is on the reader when the reader is made to feel that the narrator is lying and Emerence could not have acted like that and got away with it. She has to approve her employer. Could anyone endlessly sweep snow the way Emerence is said to? Sometimes the narrative detail is symbolic. At the end of the novel what is left of Emerence’s furniture is said to turn into dust.

The style in Rix’s hands is concise, strong sentences, not meandering at the same time it can be remarkably lyrical. In her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, Ali Smith thinks it’s a novel about survival tactics, a study of “authenticity versus fakery,” of “old Hungary” versus the “new” (Emerence being the old? this narrator a new kind of person?) In a review in the New York Review of Books (April 2016), Deborah Eisenberg thinks it’s about two people who need one another, need people, the gulf between people and “rationales” we tell one another to excuse ourselves for “failing” to cross the door and “the costs of love.” The anonymous writer of the Gale Scholarly entry writes:

“Ultimately, however, the novel represents more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerence is a moral genius–in the Kantian sense–who is part of all. She goes through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential movements only, is generous, and in her every relationship seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding; it is a duel that is really an inner struggle. Emerence and the fiction writer are then two sides of the same person. A human fragmented into roles searches for the self, for the Emerence that lives in all.”

All very satisfying, wholesome even. A doppelganger as the posters for the film imply.

A Hungarian reader, Clara Gyorgyey (World Literature Today, 69:4, 1995) finds Emerence to be magical, surrounded by mystery, a mythic figure (the narrator does go on about her being a goddess, a Valkyrie at one point), everyone is cured, animals obey her. (She takes over a dog, Viola, whom the narrator and her husband rescued from a cruel death by burying her alive in the streets.) John Cunningham says the film adaptation by Istvad Szabo (no relation, and it’s available at Amazon prime) is disappointing even if it has Helen Mirren as Emerence. I agree there; it’s so bland, he just didn’t know what to do with this troubling book. He made Emerence too soft, too approachable and realistic too. At this book club some of the women (all were women that day and most days most are women I gather) tried to categorize and tuck it away. One person said it didn’t have a “good” message; another (me) that there was precious little joy or satisfaction in the love or relationships people took some considerable risks for. It might be the narrator is made very happy by this husband she is devoted to, but we don’t see this. As far as we can tell, he’s an avoider. There was someone who said it was disquieting. We could take it as life-writing where Szabo tries to tell of the recent and older history of Hungary, the lives of vulnerable woman, of whom she is one, and cannot tell directly — as she could not take down any doors when on TV. Nor does Austen reveal herself directly either. But she is everywhere in Emma.


From Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) shows Emma (Kate Beckinsale) Mr Martin’s letter

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

*****************************

A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

****************************


Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

*******************************

A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »